Monthly Archives: October 2011


I would love to learn how to swim. I know a little bit about swimming. I’ve seen people swim at the pool and on television when I’ve watched the Olympics. I’ve paddled about in the water and so I know what it feels like to try to swim. I just don’t yet know the technicalities of swimming and I don’t have the confidence to try it on my own. But, if I decide to take lessons, I would hope that the teacher would first assess what I already know before ‘diving’ into the instruction.

In our classrooms, when we want to explore a topic with a group of children, we also want to start with what they know – with their prior knowledge. Of course, we want to be sure that everyone in the group already has some experience with the topic. If we are going to embark on a project exploring bridges, we might want to first give the children some experience looking at a bridge, either on a field trip or at least in reproductions. We might want children to first draw a bridge after visiting or seeing one. Then we want to start asking them what they know about bridges.

(Kindergarten/first grade student in a 12:1:1 Special Education class after the first visit to see a bridge)

When I work with teachers on developing classroom inquiry projects, I encourage them to use post-its (some times referred to as ‘stickies’) when they begin collecting bits of children’s prior knowledge. This often takes place after the first field trip. With young children, teachers might consider doing a sketch along with the words so that the children can ‘read’ the chart too.

By using post-its for recording children’s ideas, rather than writing directly on to chart paper, students can then take an active role in organizing the post its into categories. This is certainly not an easy activity. There’s often disagreement about which ‘facts’ belong together, but this type of discussion really gets children thinking about their ideas and the ideas of their classmates. After observing teachers doing this activity (categorizing the post its) as a whole class lesson and also with a small group, I’m leaning towards working with a small group to get the chart ‘going’ and then sharing the results with the class. Then it can be completed with the entire group participating. Teachers agree that this approach seems to be working best.

After the categories are formed, children can then think of labels for each different grouping. A more sophisticated approach, but possibly too abstract for many young children, could be to think of a question that all of the information in one category answers. For example, “Who uses bridges?” or “what are bridges made of?”

As you can see from the chart “Bridge Ideas”, not all of the children have a true understanding of how bridges are constructed. (“Bridges have strings”). However, it’s important to include this in the initial chart because that gives the teacher an understanding of what needs to be explored to clarify this concept. It seems that this child doesn’t know about cables and the materials that are used to construct bridges and this is something to be explored on field trips and in readings.

This chart will become a living document throughout the study. New understandings will be added, misunderstandings crossed out. It’s ‘messy’ like the study is messy, turning and twisting along the exploration road. It’s not a document to be laminated because that would say, “we are finished with our investigation.’

Because of the ongoing changes that are made to this document, I shy away from the more traditional KWL chart which puts all information into a neatly tied up package. Basically, using a separate chart follows the same idea of gathering prior knowledge and using what children know as a foundation for an investigation. However it sends a stronger message that this is an exploration, which is forever growing.


Well if you want to sing out, sing out
And if you want to be free, be free
‘Cause there’s a million things to be
You know that there are
Cat Stevens

“Look Renée, it stopped raining!” Akhira pointed to the window and 24 pairs of eyes followed her finger. Sure enough, the incessant rain had stopped. That meant that we could have outdoor play at last. But for my class, it also meant that at meeting time that morning we would all happily sing “Blue Skies”.

Singing infused my classroom with good feelings. When Vicky had a hard time separating from her dad one morning, we all solemnly sang The Comfort Song – “what should I do if my best friend is crying? What should I do? I don’t know what to say. I take my friend in my arms and I hold her.” Of course we then had to go on and sing verses for our daddy, our sister, our puppy.

Singing has always been a strong tool for building community. During the civil rights movement, in the 50’s and ‘60’s, group singing helped freedom fighters hold onto their courage in the most difficult circumstances. ‘‘The freedom songs are playing a strong and vital role in our struggle,’’ said Martin Luther King, Jr ‘‘they give the people new courage and a sense of unity. I think they keep alive a faith, a radiant hope, in the future, particularly in our most trying hours”.

Community building in the classroom is our first goal as teachers. When we have a cohesive, caring community, class rules seem to easily fall into place. Children help and support each other, bullying becomes practically a non-issue and maintaining discipline is not the teacher’s priority.

Now before I continue, I want to address the issue of voice. Many teachers have told me that they really can’t sing in class because they don’t have good singing voices. Well, my voice is somewhat flat and I have difficulty carrying a tune. That fact never, however, seemed to bother the children in any of my classes. We sang every day and for many different purposes. When we were doing a bridge study we sang, “Love Can Build a Bridge.” During our waterways study we sang “Sailing Down My Golden River.” During the years that Connie Norgren and I had our quasi-team teaching experience (her first grade and my kindergarten shared a double room, did studies together and always met to sing on her rug….but that is another story) Connie taught me many ecology songs (“Think About the Earth”; “The Garden Song”), freedom songs (“Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around”; “Rosa Parks”; “This Little Light”) and songs from many different cultures (“De Colores”, “Que Bonita Bandera”; “Santa Lucia”).

Many literacy skills are well supported when children are engaged in singing on a regular basis. Let’s check out some of them.

Phonemic Awareness: When children sing and clap out songs, they play around with the sounds, segmenting and putting them together, tapping and clapping out rhythms. (Ba-by Be-lu-ga in the deep blue sea; Miss Mar-ry Mack, Mack, Mack…)

Rhyme: There are so many rhyming songs; it’s difficult to know which to list. For starters there’s Down By the Bay, Jenny Jenkins, This Old Man (also a counting song) Singing songs that mix up initial consonants, like Willoughby, Wallaby, bring out lots of giggles but also have children thinking about the sounds of the letters along with the rhymes.

Alphabetic Awareness: Besides the old standby of the ABC song, don’t forget about A You’re Adorable. My class sat in a circle and ‘wrote’ the letters on each other’s backs as they sang. Then we ‘erased’ the letters, turned around and re-sang the song in upper case!

Phonetic Awareness and Spelling Patterns: “I Can’t Spell Hippopotamus” is a song that I have used and it is one of the most engaging activities for practicing spelling patterns. I’ve had children work in partnerships to come up with spelling patterns (pot, hot, not; can, man, fan; play, tray, stay, etc.) that we then incorporate into the song. It’s a game, it’s a song, it’s a spelling lesson, and it’s fun!

One to one word recognition: After children know a song really well (‘by heart’), I put it on a chart and the children can start making connections between the words that they are singing and the words on the paper. Children take turns ‘being the teacher’ and, with a wooden stick, point to the words as the class reads and sings along.
In June, I often celebrated our year of singing by taping the children singing together, making copies of the tape (today it would be a CD!) for each child and adding a sing-along songbook. I recently met a former student, now a college graduate, who told me that for years after kindergarten she listened to the tape and that the family played it and all sang along when they went on long car trips!

So, remember the words from the African spiritual and don’t forget to ‘’sing when the spirit says sing” to bring lots of spirit and joy into the school day!